Sunday, April 5, 2009

Selling Africa’s Future

The global food crisis, fed by a worldwide economic downturn and a rush to use food crops for biofuels, has caused three dozen nations to require food aid. Some governments have enacted export bans or restrictions to keep staple crops, especially rice, from being exported. However, amidst the concern over feeding one’s people, developing country governments around the world are entering into land deals supposedly to become food self-sufficient, but as Time magazine and others have described them, these deals threaten the economic independence of those governments, as well as the viability of smallholder farmers.

Wealthy nations without the capacity to feed themselves, such as Libya, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Kuwait and Qatar, are making deals with African and other developing country governments to lease land on which to grow food. These land lease deals are supposed to benefit the developing countries being targeted, yet the impetus for the deals is for the sponsoring nations to be able to produce food for their own people. Moreover, these land deals carry immediate and long-term threats for these countries and their people.

The July 2008 deal between the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics and the Government of Madagascar involved the leasing of more than 900,000 hectares of Madagascar land – more than a third of that island nation’s arable land, according to Time. Not only was this deal a factor in the recent coup in Madagascar, but the new, military-imposed government immediately acted to suspend that deal. Whether that land deal is permanently off or merely being restructured for new beneficiaries remains to be seen.

The non-profit agricultural research organization Grain produced a report earlier this year providing details of an agreement between the Libya Africa Investment Portfolio and the Government of Mali under which 100,000 hectares of land within that African nation’s prime rice producing area would be under Libyan control with infrastructure, technology and hybrid rice seeds to be provided by China. This project will not only push Malian farmers off the land they currently use, but the hybrid rice seeds supplied by China cannot be saved by farmers (who now provide 90% of the seeds used in Mali) and must be purchased annually and worked only with high-tech machinery and a high level of chemicals. When you add in the plans to expand production to tomatoes and livestock, it is clear that Malian farmers are not in the picture for Mali’s agricultural future. When you further factor in the Libyan arrangement for the recruitment of a large number of workers from Bangladesh, jobs for infrastructure workers in Mali may not be plentiful either.

Libya has a similar, but smaller, agricultural land lease deal in place with Liberia, involving up to 17,000 hectares of land from the Government of Liberia, and other agricultural land lease deals may not yet have been discovered or finalized.

Several years ago, Global Witness reported that Angola sold off several years of oil futures in order to gain currency to fund the war against its then-adversary UNITA. During the recent oil boom that saw prices rise to nearly $150 per barrel last year, Angola was unable to fully reap the economic benefits other oil producers realized. Will African countries learn nothing from the Angolan commodity example and auction off their agricultural futures to wealthy nations seeking to solve their own food deficits?

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